Movie review by Greg Carlson
Robert Hanssen, currently serving a life sentence for selling classified information to the Soviets, is a fascinating figure. In “Breach,” Hanssen is portrayed by Chris Cooper as a bitter, conflicted individual whose contradictions make little sense to Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the young FBI clerk assigned to help take Hanssen down. Director Billy Ray relishes the schism in Hanssen’s character, and builds a movie that neatly balances the imaginative intrigue of post Cold War-era espionage with the dreary, corporate reality of government desk jockeys frustrated with their lot in life. “Breach” is certainly not a great movie, but its sensational subject matter will interest history buffs and spy movie aficionados.
Hanssen was the person responsible for arguably the worst security breach in the history of the United States. During the course of at least fifteen years, he traded secrets for diamonds and cash that ultimately totaled well more than one million dollars. Among his ignominious activities, he sold out a trio of KGB agents who were working for the U.S., he revealed the course of action for U.S. officials in the event of a nuclear attack, and he offered up the names of American double agents. One can only speculate as to the reasons Hanssen decided to betray his country, and for the most part, “Breach” avoids simplistic generalizations.
Instead, the filmmakers reveal Hanssen as seen through the eyes of O’Neill, which allows viewers to discover the stupefying extent of the traitor’s duplicity with the same incredulousness as the young FBI man. At first, O’Neill is, in the parlance of the bureau, not even completely “read in” to the case; he believes he has been assigned to his new desk because Hanssen is a sexual deviant. While Hanssen’s secrets-for-cash deals with the Russians turn out to be much worse than O’Neill realizes, Hanssen’s other behaviors can make the hairs on one’s neck stand on end.
Cooper, a tremendously gifted actor, manages to make Hanssen a richly textured, thoroughly engrossing character, despite the man’s creepiness. Hanssen’s political double-dealing is mirrored in his personal life. A devout Catholic who virtually never misses Mass, Hanssen also videotapes himself having sex with his wife and mails copies to a friend. Ray makes a choice to abstain from a psychological exploration of Hanssen’s unusual peccadilloes, and one wonders how different the movie might have been had it been filtered directly through the consciousness of Hanssen as opposed to O’Neill.
Phillippe is well cast as O’Neill, and brings to his role a nicely tuned mixture of arrogance and naivete. Despite the withering sarcasm and criticism he suffers daily from his new “boss,” O’Neill comes to admire Hanssen for a time, and Phillippe brings the audience with him. O’Neill’s attitude only shifts for good once the extent of Hanssen’s violation is revealed. “Breach” has very few scenes that would appear in a fantasy spy movie, but it makes the most of its opportunities to cook up suspense. For a story with a well-known outcome, it is a movie that generates a fair share of tension in its telling.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/26/07.